In the 1988 movie "Rainman," the autistic savante Raymond, who has memorized airline statistics, refuses to fly on any airline except Qantas, because he says that Qantas has never had a crash. Even at that time, this was not true. No airline has a perfect safety record. Nevertheless, Qantas has never had a single fatal jet airplane crash. In fact, Qantas has had only 2 safety incidents and no fatalities whatsoever since 1951, making it among the world's safest airlines.
Other international airlines which come in at the very top of the safety list include British Virgin, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Qatar Airways, and the discount carrier Ryanair. Cathay Pacific was also Skytrax's 2009 Airline of the Year for overall excellence of air travel. Another serious competitor for safest airline is Finnair, which has had no fatalities or hull loss accidents since 1963.
For its excellent safety record alone, the Israeli carrier El Al also makes the cut, with no passenger aircraft crashes since 1951. It is additionally considered the most secure airline in the world, with passenger and baggage screening second to none and in-air security measures which include infrared countermeasures against anti-aircraft missiles. All El Al pilots are former Israeli Air Force pilots, and air marshalls are standard on every international El Al flight. However, Israel itself is considered a Category 2 country by the FAA, meaning that the FAA does not consider Israel to meet international aviation safety standards. The FAA's specific concern here is that traffic control at some of Israel's smaller airports does not meet international standards.
Singapore Airlines, which has consistently been among Skytrax's top three airlines since Skytrax started researching airline service, misses out on the very top of the safety list because of a single crash in Taipei in 2000. In heavy typhoon rains which obscured visibility, Flight 006 had accidentally turned onto a runway which had been closed for repair and collided with construction equipment while trying to take off. The closed runway had not been blocked off and was partially lighted. Although the pilot had twice confirmed with the control tower that he was on the correct runway, the airport lacked the ground radar to verify the aircraft's location, and the tower could not see the aircraft through the rain.
The charter airline Air Transat has had no accidents since it began service in 1987. In fact, in all that time, Air Transat has had only a single safety-related incident, when a fuel leak forced an aircraft to land in the Azores rather than its Lisbon destination.
The dramatic quitting of JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater is not the only reason JetBlue should be making headlines. Jet Blue is one of the few U.S. domestic airlines, and by far the largest, to hold a perfect no-accident record. It also has one of the best safety incidents records, and is the only American airline to have received the maximum number of safety points from the German analyst JACDEC.
However, JetBlue has been very unlucky with its media coverage. Even though it has had only 3 safety incidents since it began service in 2000 (including Slater's abrupt departure), every one of them received widespread media attention. Landing gear locked into an incorrect position happens many times a year around the world without causing a crash. On Airbus A319, A320, and 321 series aircraft, it has happened at least 67 times since 1989. When it happened to JetBlue's Flight 292 in 2005, network and cable news covered the situation live for over 3 hours, right up until the airplane landed safely. Because JetBlue aircraft had just been equipped with DirecTV satellite service, passengers were able to watch their situation on TV almost the entire time.
Another domestic U.S. carrier that often turns up at the top of the safety game is Southwest Airlines. This is a case where statistics don't tell the whole story, and you have to look more closely at how the statistics are measured. In safety lists where Southwest is on top, it is because it flies the most passengers of any US airline, yet has never had a fatality on one of its aircraft.
Yet Southwest Airlines has had at least 6 serious incidents since 2000, one of which resulted in a fatality on the ground. This 2005 accident, which happened when Flight 1248 skidded off a Chicago runway and onto a street due to faulty reverse thrusters, did not count in most statistics because the aircraft was salvageable and none of the airline passengers were injured. Southwest's record of safety violations is another thing which does not appear in the statistics. The FAA has found that some Southwest aircraft were allowed to fly up to 30 months past their inspection deadlines, while others have been fitted with improper parts. After a year of negotiations, Southwest has settled the first issue with the FAA with a back fine of $7.5 million, which may double if Southwest does not comply with specific safety improvements specified in the agreement. The second issue is still under investigation.
The problem with statistics
Statistics can't tell the full story of airline safety because there is no independent domestic or international agency which evaluates the safety records of airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration establishes and enforces safety regulations, as does the the European Aviation Safety Agency. The National Transportation Safety Board investigates accidents. Most of this information tells only whether established domestic or international safety standards have been met.
The Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit organization, compiles information from these databases for the purpose of improving air safety, but does not rate airlines. The rationale is that accidents in Europe and America are so rare that there can be no meaningful statistics comparing one airline's safety record to another's. However, the FSF may be too intertwined with airlines and air manufacturers to be truly independent.
The private German agency JACDEC (Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Center) maintains a list of the world's safest airlines, based on the number of crashes against the volume of traffic. It also analyzes each individual airline and type of aircraft, and maintains extensive databases on each accident and safety incident in the world. You can order a mini-check or detailed safety check of a specific air carrier here. Be sure to specify that you want it in English.
News agencies and dedicated websites keep track of broad statistics, such as number of fatalities and estimated number of flights. These kinds of compiled statistics usually measure the number of fatalities or passenger injuries against the number of passengers, the number of flights, or the number of miles flown. Some of these statistics also take into account whether a certain type of aircraft has been implicated in crashes and safety incidents, such as the recent controversy over cracks in the landing gear of Bombardier's Q400. Most reputable airlines will immediately ground the aircraft in question until the necessary repairs can be made.
However, with these kinds of broad statistics, meaningful data often falls between the cracks. For example, if safety is measured based on number of accidents and an accident is recorded whenever at least one passenger is injured, an accident involving severe turbulence which makes a passenger break his leg will be counted the same as an accident where a jet plunges into the sea, killing all its passengers. If airlines are measured by passenger fatalities only, skidding off the runway won't count at all unless someone on the aircraft is killed. Accident-based safety statistics can't evaluate an airline's standard maintenance or its record of attention to safety issue. Accident-based safety statistics also can't distinguish between airlines which fly solely to airports with excellent ground support and those which fly to regions with poor quality airports and air traffic control.
Although the European Commission does not analyze airline safety records across the board, it does maintain a list of airlines with the worst safety records. These airlines, officially "found to be unsafe," are banned from operating in European airspace. There is no real equivalent in the United States. The only list that is publicly accessible lists banned countries of origin rather than banned airlines.
Flying an unfamiliar airline
If an unfamiliar airline is not on the banned list but safety is still a concern, you do have options. An airline which is a member of the International Air Transport Association is required to meet an IATA safety audit. Partly for this reason, national airlines are generally safer than regional airlines. For even higher standards, try to fly with a codeshare partner airline. Codeshare partner airlines constantly audit each other, so you can be certain any member of the alliance will meet the partnership's expected level of safety.
Finally, in international airlines, air safety often seems to go hand in hand with highly rated service. This may be because airlines with excellent service are generally reluctant to cut corners in other areas, resulting in better overall maintenance and fewer safety incidents.